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Making gods of men: utilitarianism, medicine and modern living

March 23, 2015

We must stop thinking of ourselves as these Gods, faulted or faultless, who have the right to give and take life because we have the power. It is a strange notion anyway, that God can freely give and take away; throughout history we have accepted that once a life is given, it cannot be taken back by the person who “gave” it; infanticide is illegal, for example.

In that case, when we breed something – an animal, or a society – our inability to let it grow, go or die shows one of our worst tendencies as much as one of our better ones. We have a tendency to think that we can fix everything. It’s a race, to see if we can eradicate disease.

I think it unlikely we will ever eradicate disease. More will come as we solve them. I wouldn’t advocate not trying to battle them; better to create health as and when possible, because suffering is misery. But we should stop fooling ourselves that this is a battle that can be won, that we are ever doing anything except playing catch up. Thinking otherwise drives us to attempt to dominate, rather than compromise with, the elements in our environments that we find to be unsatisfactory but serve an important purpose.

We have made the mistake before of trying to remove threats from our environment, and we are mostly disgusted by the idea of parasites, bacteria and mould, forgetting these are not bringers of death and discord, but part of life and bringers of other types of life we may not yet appreciate. If, by some miracle, there is an organism on the planet the eradication of which would not affect us at all (it always turns out to in some distantly related way) – we should still consider that something which is not useful to us to not necessarily worthless.

Our thoughts that we can beat or eradicate anything are, I believe, affecting our ability to operate effectively. Much less emphasis is put on pain relief than cures, seen to be a secondary concern even if more immediately useful. Our cures are like poisons. We fight death at every corner and fight other people’s death, when they themselves may not want to fight it. The idea that we might “get better”, there might be a “cure” has such a hold on us we refuse to let anyone die until it is clear there is no other choice. Never mind that the choice of those sick may be to take the risk they might miss the wonderful cure, cut their losses and die with as little pain and much dignity as they can manage. In this country, we’re obsessed with saving people, if necessary, from themselves.

This extends to the animal kingdom, though in interestingly the opposite direction. It is fine for humans to euthanise creatures, not merely to end their suffering, but sometimes because there are just too many of them to take care of, thanks to us. The idea that it is our job to end suffering seems to justify having caused the suffering in the first place it’s fine to eat meat as long as the animals don’t suffer. It’s is a bit like the wicked witch giving Repunzel a temple massage after yanking her hair up out of the window – if animals were never in captivity, they would not need us to reduce the suffering caused by it.

Livestock is kept for our interests, not theirs, and the reduction in suffering is a poor compromise built from the assumption that human needs come first and animals’ second. Therefore, the apparent good intention is nothing of the sort. Intentions matter, because intentions invariably change the effect of any given action; factory farming does not exist because we domesticated animals for their safety. It exists because we domesticated them for our food. If we had truly had the animals’ best interests at heart, of course we would have left them alone, and there would be no livestock.

We can, up to a point, reduce suffering. Not as much as we think and certainly not as much as we do, but we can. This makes us think that we always should, and we forget the circumstances under which we do so, caught up in our idea of our role as protector.

It is not man’s job to reduce animal suffering. If we have caused it, we must repair it, as we repair mistakes wherever they arise; if we see it and intervene, we are showing empathy; but it is not our job to intervene. If we find ourselves in a situation where we have the opportunity to release an animal from a painful trap, it is acceptable to do so; but wild-scale eradication of natural suffering would involve stopping creatures from eating other creatures and would of course wreck the ecosystem. No one regrets more than me that this is the way the ecosystem works, but alas, it is.

Thus, we must consider that our help is inessential, if not downright dangerous, not requested and not required. Any justification we might make for our actions about reducing suffering of anyone, human or non-human being, should be considered carefully for signs of a Messiah complex. When we create medicines for humans, we may be expressing our own fears of illness or fears of losing loved ones, or we may be attempting to conquer death.

I would not do away with modern medicines, but I question the methods; the utilitarian idea of testing on animals because of reducing “overall suffering” is a quantitative way of looking at the problem, not a qualitative one that examines the morality of sacrificing one for the other, or the morality of comparing the right to life of one compared to another, or the morality of using another being as a means. We routinely rank the world’s creatures in terms of importance without having the first clue what it means to be “important” in a global sense. When we think “global”, we think of humans and countries, which is just plain incorrect, since the world is not predominantly inhabited by us.

Just as it is not our business to increase the “quantity of sensation”, we may argue it is not our business to eradicate suffering. We will continue to do so forever; nature, of course, will throw up different and evolved problems for us to tackle. While we tackle them, we should consider that it is not our right to use whatever means we have to Save the World – or at least, the human world.

It would be better to consider our contribution to the world as side-along, as give and take, rather than that “the most powerful gives”. This idea of the most powerful is false anyway, if man can be destroyed by potato famine or a strain of flu at any given moment. The way we see people now is in terms of takers, helpless dependents, and givers of life, freedom and justice. This obscures any sense we may have that the way we live helps to keep alive problems and inequities in the social world, not to mention the environmental ones. If we could consider the contribution of all beings as equal, not lesser, greater, better or worse, we could improve our engagement with it and move towards both a more moral and more accepting era.

As long as we realise our motivations are selfish however it may appear that they are not, we are more likely to realise that our treatment of the voiceless is relevant to the question of ethics in medicine. We may then look for other ways to approach the problem of cures for illness, rather than making whatever we need out of what is easiest to get, without thought to what non-human animals suffer.

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From → Animal Rights

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